As an Episcopalian pastor, the Rev. Wilifred Allen-Faiella has a reputation for being an outspoken advocate of social justice and Christian compassion. As the top administrator of her Coconut Grove parish, which includes an expensive and elite elementary school, Allen-Faiella has a somewhat different reputation -- that of an autocrat whose judgment can't be trusted.
Among the reasons: Allen-Faiella allowed a convicted pedophile to volunteer in the thrift shop next to St. Stephen's Episcopal Day School. When parents discovered the man's criminal record, Allen-Faiella failed to take immediate action, so the school's principal, Carol Shabe, forcefully confronted the pastor, demanding that the man's school access be revoked at once.
That incident was one of several problems between the principal and the pastor. On October 11 Allen-Faiella fired Shabe over the objections of several members of the school's board of trustees and perhaps in violation of her contract. Allen-Faiella, for her part, denies that Shabe's termination resulted from the pedophile controversy. "She was removed after lengthy divisiveness and a difficult relationship with the school," the pastor says. Shabe, principal for just two years, had been recruited for the $130,000 job from Washington, D.C., after a national search.
What has happened since then can best be described as civil war. A crucial school fundraiser was canceled for fear no one would donate because so many parents are angry. The chairman of the school's board of trustees resigned in protest. And the widow of a prominent trustee dropped plans for friends to donate in her husband's name. There are calls for the ouster of Allen-Faiella, who has been pastor for three years.
Allen-Faiella's response to this controversy has infuriated many parents, fueling their view of her as intransigent and unresponsive. "She has shown very poor judgment and is making a mockery of our school," says Jacqui Huggett, whose husband, well-known lawyer William Huggett, sat on the school's board of trustees for six years before his death this past August. Huggett has called off plans for a memorial fund in her husband's name to be established at the school.
Located on Main Highway in the Grove, St. Stephen's Day School enrolls just 300 students from prekindergarten through sixth grade. Tuition is $12,000 per year. Parents, who need not be church members, tend to be wealthy and very involved in their children's education. It's been that way since the school was founded in 1958.
The controversy now enveloping St. Stephen's began about a year ago, in late October or early November 2003, when a 79-year-old member of the church named Steven Eddie Sypnieski asked to volunteer at the Twice Around thrift shop located on the parish grounds next to the school. He was given a key to open the gate to the parish so he could work on Saturdays in addition to weekdays, and another key to an adult bathroom in the school. Like other volunteers, he was permitted to eat in the school's cafeteria, although not during student lunch hours.
Allen-Faiella tells me that at the time Sypnieski volunteered, "I did not know he had a criminal record. That's the only pertinent information you need to know." She elaborated a little more during a September 24 meeting of more than 200 parents. According to several people who attended, the pastor explained that Sypnieski told her in a confidential pastoral setting that he had some problems in his past. She declined to say if he explained the nature of those problems.
"She knew," insists Armando Chapelli, Jr., whose son attends the school. He recounts a meeting with Allen-Faiella this past August: "We sat in the rectory of the church for over an hour, and she told me that when the man came to volunteer, she met him in a pastoral setting and she asked him if there was anything in his past that would prevent him working in a church or school setting. Pastor Willie said to me, ö[Sypnieski] told me once upon a time allegations had been made against him for molesting a child but nothing had come of it.' She quoted him as saying that it was a long time ago and basically there was no substance to it. She felt that was a satisfactory response and allowed him to work in the secondhand shop."
Apparently Allen-Faiella didn't bother to check Sypnieski's criminal record, easily accessible on the clerk of courts Website (www.miami-dadeclerk.com/dadecoc). In 1992 Miami-Dade police arrested Sypnieski for sexual battery on a minor. According to the arrest affidavit, Sypnieski was baby-sitting an eight-year-old boy. "During this time while watching television in the living room, the subject approached the victim and told him he wanted to remove his pants. The victim attempted to get away from the subject but was eventually caught. The subject then forcibly removed the victim's pants and underwear. He then forced the victim to his hands and knees, as the subject knelt behind him. He then forcibly inserted his penis into the victim's rectum.... The subject, on 5-22-92, gave a confession outlining his involvement in this case."
Sypnieski pleaded guilty to "familial or custodial sexual battery" and was sentenced to ten years' probation.
On December 16, 2003, after Sypnieski had been working at the thrift shop about two months, David Colonna, a school trustee, was reviewing the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's sex-offender Website (www3.fdle.state.fl.us/sexual_ predators) when he came across Sypnieski's picture. In an e-mail to other trustees, Colonna wrote that he informed Allen-Faiella: "She was equally distressed by this information and assured me she would consult with the individual."
Allen-Faiella confirms this. "I was made aware of his record on the sixteenth of December [a Tuesday]," she says. Because the Christmas break was to begin Friday, she continues, "I intended to take care of the situation as soon as we got back. In fact I put it on the calendar for January 7 to talk with my priest assistant how we were going to handle the matter."
In other words, her immediate response to this rather chilling news was to schedule a meeting two weeks later with her assistant.
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Allen-Faiella never held that meeting. Another parent discovered the same sex-offender information on January 6 and ran straight to the school's principal, Carol Shabe, who sprang into crisis-management mode. On the advice of her attorney, Shabe won't comment for this story, but the events of that day are widely known. She called board chairman J. Brett Houston to brief him, then went directly to Allen-Faiella's office. Shabe had to confront the pastor two more times before she was able to persuade Allen-Faiella to act that day to reclaim Sypnieski's keys. (Houston resigned in support of Shabe.)
Allen-Faiella believes too much is being made of the episode. "I think it's being blown totally out of proportion," she says. "The appropriate people knew about it. No big deal was made about it. And suddenly it became a big issue." In fact she claims that Shabe told her: "We're just going to keep this quiet. No reason to get people alarmed." (Shabe has told parents she doesn't recall such a conversation.)
Allen-Faiella also says that following Sypnieski's dismissal, she's learned his probation had ended prior to him volunteering, and that she'd read something indicating "he was not considered a criminal threat to the community." (She can't recall where she saw the information.) Had she known these things earlier, would she have allowed Sypnieski to work at the parish? "That's a moot point now," she responds.
Shabe, meanwhile, has hired an attorney to contest her dismissal. Several parents have contributed to the ex-principal's legal fund, money they had intended to donate to St. Stephen's.